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Friday, July 20, 2012

Movie Review: Behind the Planks

Documentary Wagner's Dream shines (some) light on the Lepage Ring
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Wagner's Dream offers an inside look at the Met's new Ring Cycle.
Image from Wagner's Dream © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
There are many memorable moments in Wagner's Dream, the new documentary by Susan Frömke, delving into the inner workings of the Metropolitan Opera's multi-million-dollar mounting of Wagner's Ring Cycle. However, nothing is more telling than what happens after Deborah Voigt fell off the set.

The soprano, who was making her debut in the key role of Brunnhilde took her tumble in the opening moments of Act II of the premiere of Die Walküre. The movie shows the build-up to the accident, and the fall itself. The cameras track Ms. Voigt afterwards, recording her embarrassment at tripping over her long Valkyrie skirt, and her determination to have that precarious entrance altered in the following performances.

The next day, her decision was abruptly overruled by Met general manager Peter Gelb.

Mr. Gelb is omnipresent in Wagner's Dream. Always composed and nattily dressed, he appears, specter-like at rehearsals and meetings as the Ring goes through its difficult birth cycle. The film shows his role as impresario, diplomat, and occasional herder of the Met's many cats. Throughout the film, the controversial honcho attempts to remain genial, although one sees the mask start to crack when tenor Gary Lehman pulls of Siegfried four days before the premiere.

Mr. Lehman is absent from the film, as is tenor Jonas Kaufmann, soprano Eve-Marie Westbroek, and mezzo Stephanie Blythe. Bryn Terfel gets one congenial scene, a Wagnerian quest to find a bent nail backstage before singing Wotan. Ms. Voigt allows the camera to follow her into the serpentine corridors of the Met, to rehearsals, to photo shoots, and in the nerve-wracking moments before she takes the stage. Similar attention is paid to Jay Hunter Morris, the Texan tenor whose timely arrival saves both the premiere of Siegfried and the film's third act.

Ms. Frömke devotes the most camera time to director Robert Lepage, whose Ex Machina team attempts to deliver this technically sophisticated staging safely and on time. The movie starts by presenting the Icelandic Eddas as Mr. Lepage's inspiration, tracking the first wooden "toy" models of the Ring and the eventual construction of the first prototype plank units in the Ex Machina workshops in Quebec City.

The story moves forward into the testing phase, showing nervous Rhinemaidens taking their first rides on the contraption and the difficulties inherent in loading the stage set (called "the Machine") onto the Met's side stage-wagons and getting the whole contraption onto the main stage. This is one of the climactic moments of the film, and the feeling of relief as the multi-ton structure is successfully moved is almost palpable.

The tricky business of staging the operas and getting on and off the shaky Machine is addressed, with an amusing scene involving an angry Hans-Peter KönigThe efforts of ninja-clad stagehands to physically manipulate the planks during the show lend a human element to the proceedings that was not apparent in the opera house. Finally, singers are added to the equation and the movie transits to opening night, and the Machine's failure at the end of the last scene of Das Rheingold.

What's frustrating about this documentary is that it is clearly a promotional effort by the Met. To some degree, it encourages thought and dialogue about the meaning of the Ring. Congenial insight from radio personality William Berger provides background to the novice Wagnerite. Amusing footage of audience members provides a look at audience attitudes toward Wagner.. However, Ms. Frömke's film chooses to skip or gloss over certain embarrassing moments that are well known to anyone who has followed the two-year birth of this Ring. 

Most shocking is the footage of "opening night" of Götterdämmerung. As shown in Wagner's Dream, it somehow omits the "exploding statue heads" that made the audience laugh out loud during the finale of the Jan. 27, 2012 performance. Here, the statues are shown crumbling, an image from the re-imagining of the finale after opening night. Considering that her film does not pull punches when it comes to embarrassing its leading lady, it would have been so much better if Ms. Frömke had been allowed to report the whole truth.

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